Is it possible to extricate contemporary art from the contemporary city?
I do not mean, in asking this question, to point out simply that the history of modern art in Indo-Pakistan as much as in Europe is congruent with the history of a relentless urbanization. Nor is it simply a matter of indicating that artists, art schools, art movements – in short the institutional and cultural apparatus of art – have their roots in the city as the source of both the commerce and psychic reserve of art activity.
What I am asking here is, whether we can think of the art we have – urban, international, ruthlessly dividing itself from the ‘taints’ of craft and ‘folk’ culture – in the context of the invisible or vanishing hinterland of the villages, rural communities and ways of life that still make up more than half the population of the globe. Is there a subjectivity that belongs particularly to this world, and how does it depict itself – as opposed to how it is depicted in the pastoral fantasies of a city-dwelling cosmopolitan artist.
Early modernism, of course, despite the concern with technological advances and scientific theories of light and vision, depicted urban and rural cultures with equal ease. Nonetheless what particularly distinguished the work of 19thcentury Impressionists for example, from all previous artistic ambitions was the portrayal of the immediacy of the fleeting moment, best captured in scenes of activity and congregation around bars and public spaces. This division –the time of the city, an active and fleeting, event-ful time, and the time of the countryside (eternal, still, though ready to be psychologized) – can only be seen as a broadly accurate one, but its persistence as an attitude means we must at least take account of it. Counter-examples can easily be found: against Monet’s Haystacks and Pissarro’s idyllic harvesters, we can set Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, or his Pair of Shoes (famously, if not incontrovertibly interpreted by Heidegger as ‘peasant’s shoes’ – an idea disputed by Meyer Schapiro who claimed that the shoes were in fact Van Gogh’s own). But the idea of the countryside as an empty landscape, or a scene for ritualistic activities to do with farming and the production of food (for consumption in the city?) can be seen as a background concept that was carried silently everywhere in the path of modernity along with the very idea of art as a historical enterprise freed from an immediate purpose or end.
From today’s perspective of the dominant liberal and/or capitalist worldview, it might seem like there has never been any other direction than the one I have sketched above, but this would be to ignore the tremendous spread and effect of Socialist Realism from the 1930s until the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. While this is not the place to discuss this ideology, and its possibly unrecognized contemporary descendants in any depth, I will point out that much early South Asian art – and in particular cinema – dealt with themes of village life in a way that acknowledged the living and continuing importance of this part of the cultural demographic without reducing it to mere propaganda or attempts to consolidate and educate a nascent proletariat (amongst the most well-known examples of such Social Realism is Bimal Roys’s Do Bigha Zamin of 1953).
By and large though, the abiding caricature of socialist realism or of any practice that aims to depict the spiritual life of a peasantry far-removed from the ‘empowering’ instruments of art and its gaze, is based on the kind of bombastic Soviet-approved painting and sculpture that depicts groups of peasants and factory workers staring bravely towards a utopian future somewhere on the horizon. It was this kind of art that has been wittily characterized as ‘girl meets tractor’, a formulation that indicates at once the soullessness of the overall Soviet cultural project along with its inability to utilize the conventional forms of allegory and metaphor in anything but the most banal way.
But if we are not – as interpreters or creators of visual art – simply content with the complete surrender of any attempt at insight into a world at the physical and metaphorical borders of the art world, we are confronted with the problem of looking for ways in which this task has been approached in our particular contexts and histories. I am suggesting that there exists today a gap in the field of artistic vision, that must be methodologically filled in from within art historical and creative practices.
“Where does the city without gates begin? Probably inside that fugitive anxiety, that shudder that seizes the minds of those who, just returning from a long vacation, contemplate the imminent encounter with mounds of unwanted mail or with a house that’s been broken into and emptied of its contents. It begins with the urge to flee for a second from an oppressive technological environment…’”
Paul Virilio, The Lost Dimension
It is worth remembering that the city of today is very different, morphologically, from the city of the late 19th and early 20th century that gave birth to artistic modernism. Its arteries and flows through the countryside, its relation to harbours and other countries have been altered fundamentally by a dramatic technological improvement of speeds of all kinds, in depiction, transmission, communication and transport. For some cultural theorists, this shift requires its own field of study, a science that Virilio calls dromology (from the Greek ‘dromos’, race). The city of today, for Virilio, functions as an ‘exo-city’, turned inside-out, providing the rhythmic punctuation of escape elsewhere (the holiday to the countryside) in exchange for the complete techno-fascist mobilization of body and soul for the purposes of productivity. From this standpoint, the movements in the relation between work and leisure, city and country, tradition and technology are not simply representative of a quantitative shift or speeding up of human/ human and human/technology interactions – instead, the change in speed of modern life crosses a threshold beyond which there is a qualitative shift in the nature of modern life, a transformation of the subject of culture itself. If we accept this idea entirely, with all that it entails, we must prepare for an understanding of our modernity that is based on very different foundations than those of the modernity we have inherited as a historical fact; or more radically still, fight to slow down, resist and subvert the dromo-logic of this epoch.
My own-admittedly conservative- instinct is to accept only a modified version of the above picture. This is in part because the forms of resistance we are seeing around us today, in the shape of religious atavism and the violent suppression of the visible technologies of modernity, could very well be framed as precisely such a resistance to what Mark Fisher has called the culture of ‘Capitalist Realism’. When the Afghan Taliban tried and hanged a television set, they were enacting more than a regressive hatred of the graven image and its idolatrous aura- they were establishing a refusal to be drawn into the narrative of progress that has haunted the world since the dawn of the great colonial projects (I am including here the great Arab expansion which we equate with early Islam, and the universalist historiography of Ibn Khaldun).
Instead, I propose that there exist other temporal rhythms and forms-of-life that are still alive but in danger of being swallowed in the continuing encounter with the great global exo-cities and the convergent forces of globalization. These can only be accounted for and pitted against the strange tidal ‘ghost dance’ of capitalism and technology, by an examination of certain specific formations, such as the depictions of rural life and urban migration in the art of a given culture.
I am insisting in this brief sketch, on the ‘rural’ (as distinct from the ‘pastoral’) as a field of study, if only because it seems to me to sit in the most uncomfortable proximate relationship to contemporary art (to the extent that we can say that such a contemporaneity exists and can be talked about meaningfully). Where Slavoj Zizek has pointed to the vast stretch of the (invisible) slums across the world, we can also remark and redress the invisibility of the worlds rural population – which even in an age of mechanization and often disastrously rapid city-bound migration remains stubbornly high. In the absence of any genuine engagement in this area, we are left with naïve cartoonish ideas of how people outside cities live, often with stark consequences – such as the reduction of the entire continent of Africa to a few images of fly-ridden peasantry during a time of famine.
Within Pakistani art, for example, the representation of the pastoral can be seen in the work of the Punjab Landscape School – while the ‘rural’ as a living idea finds expression in some of Quddus Mirza’s early paintings that depict a magical and mythologized Kotli Loharan (‘Portrait of My Village’). The Primitivism of Shahid Sajjad also offers a special case, drawing as it does on his experience of living with the tribes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Ayaz Jokhio and Mohammad Ali Talpur occasionally allude to crafts of rural Sindh in their distinctly post-minimalist and urbane practices. Nonetheless, it is hard at present, to find an examination of these bodies of work that focuses on what seems to me to be a crucial element of their own personal myth-formation as artistic personas, their peculiar, individual reflective distances from the subject of migration towards the city, and the role of nostalgia or irony in the process of this representation.
Heidegger claimed that the artwork has the power to stage the struggle between World and Earth, by opening up its own world (of art) and making a depicted world intelligible, while indicating a fundamental unintelligibility or concealment (Earth) which is a prerequisite for aletheia or unconcealment. Truth, by this account, is not a measure at all, but a movement between concealment and unconcealment, visibility and invisibility that operates at the limits of finitude. The peasant’s shoes, in opening up to us the world of Van Gogh, the world of European painting and the world of the peasant, also demonstrate their status as depictions, as part of a thing called the artwork. It could follow then, that particular worlds give access to particular truths, idiosyncratic relations to our ideas of who we are and how we live. The rural – and the rural imagination – perhaps remains the site for such an unconcealment today.
Adnan Madani is a visual artist and writer from Pakistan. He is currently doing a PhD in Visual Cultures at Goldsmith, University of London. His research interests include contemporary art systems, museum studies, theories of globalisation (especially in relation to the Islamic world and South Asia) and universalism. He has contributed to various publications and participated in several exhibitions both in Pakistan and abroad
Global Villagers: Three Comments on a Certain Invisibility
Is it possible to extricate contemporary art from the contemporary city?